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Debate Watching With the World

Oct 30, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

At first I thought I wouldn't be able to watch Friday's debate at all. But as it turned out, I felt as if I watched it with the whole world.

By the time I realized the date of the first debate, my family and I had already planned to spend the weekend with two other families at a remote hot springs resort about three hours from our home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I had been to the gorgeous resort once before and it was so isolated up in a canyon that I didn't remember seeing even a telephone.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I arrived on Friday to find a wading-pool-sized satellite dish, which was connected to a TV in the restaurant. Now came the task of convincing the management to switch it to CNN International for the debate.

"There's a special futbol report on tonight," the manager told me. Going up against anything soccer-related in Mexico was about as futile as programming an embroidery competition against "American Idol."

"Well, this is really important, this debate," I said. "Actually this election will affect everyone here. Everyone in Mexico. It'll be important for people to watch."

"Yes, but we don't get to vote," he responded. "I think we should be able to vote too."

"Really, he's right," my friend, a New Zealander, turned to me and said. "The whole world should get to vote on the U.S. president, since we all have to deal with the fallout of anything he does."

She wasn't helping my cause. "Please," I said to the manager. "We'll be here eating dinner. We'll leave a big tip."

Finally the manager relented. "All right, all right." He waved me off, then added, "You know you've got some big problems up there right now." Being told by a Mexican that your country has big problems is an irony as rich as chocolate cheesecake -- without any of the sweetness.

We sat at the table with the New Zealand family and friends from Germany, while around us I noticed Mexicans casting dirty looks our way ("Pinche gringos," their faces said. "We want our futbol"). Our table was riveted to the screen, anticipating a gaffe or a slam-dunk on someone's part. Even the five children in our group were perfectly quiet, either because they understood the gravity of the moment or were hypnotized by the sinewy lines of CNN's instant response meter.

We all laughed derisively when McCain called himself a maverick, and I punched the air when Obama said that McCain kept acting as if the Iraq war started in 2007 with the surge rather than in 2003.

"Why doesn't the old guy ever look at Obama," my nine-year-old asked. "He looks so mad."

"Honey, he is mad--certifiably mad," I said.

"And Obama is talking to the old guy and he still won't look at him."

After the debate came to a close, the manager immediately switched the station to the futbol report and then came over to our table. "John McCain. He is good for Mexicans I think."

"Yeah, but not for Americans," I retorted, as I dug up some pesos to tip him.

As we walked to our rooms, my New Zealand friend said, "That didn't really seem like a debate. I mean it just seemed like two people up there giving their own commercials. It's much more rough and tumble in New Zealand."

I agreed, but pointed out that this was more interaction than you get in some of our debates.

"What did you think Detlev?" I asked the husband of the German couple.

He shook his head. "He blew it."

"Who?"

"Obama. He held back too much. He should have gone for the kill, you know? He had the perfect opportunity. He should have started out by saying, `Oh, look who's here. Look who made it after all. It's the man who couldn't campaign and think at the same time.'" With his accent, I was waiting for him to use the Hans-and-Franz epithet "girlie man." I explained that sarcasm like that would probably have backfired on Obama. He's already seen as cocky; he didn't need to be considered a smart ass too. "Yes, but he had so many chances to really get under his skin, you know? He needed to make McCain really angry. I wanted to see his eyes bug out," he said, laughing and crossing his eyes.

I countered that I thought Obama made his points but was still respectful, which should help with older voters.

"You Americans are too polite," Detlev said. "Well, you are too polite in things like this -- debates -- but when it comes to putting your fingers in everybody's business, you are not polite at all."

Before we said good night, we all agreed that no matter what we thought of his performance that night, Obama would sill win the election. "If the world voted, he would win 80 percent. No problem," Detlev said. "It's only the stubborn Americans who don't understand, you know? Achh, Americans drive me crazy sometimes."

"Amen," I said and I went to bed.